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Isami Enomoto: Legacy of a Quiet man

Cory Lum
Cory Lum



noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Some of the production pottery ashtrays designed by Isami Enomoto and produced at Ceramics Hawai‘i.

  The recent passing of Isami Enomoto marks the end of an era for ceramics in Hawai‘i.  He came of age during clay’s local heyday in the 1960’s and was a bed rock for ceramic artists up until a month before his death.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on a quiet man who helped create a community.

After over 50 years of service to pottery communities in the islands, Ceramics Hawai‘iwill be closing their doors April 30.  They've been giving away vast quantities of goods as organizations and community members stop by to remember Isami Enomoto and his wife, Zora, who was the easy going personality and bookkeeping brain behind the business.

Over 50 years ago, UH professor Claude Horan and his student, IsamiEnomoto started Ceramics Hawai‘ito provide locally made interior and architectural ceramics.  Soon, Enomoto took over, providing lamp bases, vases, ashtrays and wall murals for Honolulu’s building boom. 

“I think you’d like him.  But he was kind of grumpy.”

Enomoto’s son, Mark, grew up in the business, which ended up here in Kalihi along Kap?lama canal.

“When people bought clay from dad, they were buying what I call this inverted cone of knowledge.  You buy a lump of clay but you have Isami behind it.  It was not just a wealth of knowledge but it was a high sense of integrity.”

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Ilse and Mark Enomoto are liquidating the warehouse at Ceramics Hawai‘i, which will close for good April 30, 2016.

  “If you needed something in ceramics, that was where you went, whether you were on Kaua‘i, Big Island, or M?‘ili‘ili, you’d go over and see Isami.”  Maui Ceramist Bob Flint once worked for Enomoto.  “You would order a kiln from him  and he would take the kiln apart, go through it, make sure everything in the kiln was as it was supposed to be, then send it to you. “

“It was a sense of honor, doing the right thing… if there’s an easy way, that’s kinda bad, so you gotta do it the hard way, it’s sort of like classic Japanese…”

“He was tough!” Sally Fletcher Murchison worked for Enomoto too.  “But he gave and he gave and he gave and he gave to the people who lived in Hawai‘i who were regular people, as well as other people who were whatever you want to call it.”

Famous, perhaps?  Enomoto did the Honolulu Airport with Val Ossipoff, he did the giant UPW murals with Jean Charlot who forced him to sign them.  He also did signs at public parks, the zoo, community work, the kind that became celebrated in the Japanese mingei, or arts and crafts, movement .

“In a sense he said, when Hamada, Yanagi, and Leach discovered the "unknown craftsman," it was kind of the end of innocence. No longer can I innocently make this humble tea bowl.  Now I’m making this thing called Art.” 

In art, Mark Enomoto says his father saw increasing technical brilliance amidst disappearing content.  “A lot of it is technique, a lot of it is bravado, a lot of it is ego, we’re on the cusp of a complete cultural abyss!  That’s the term he used, a cultural abyss.”

Mark Enomoto says, as production work waned, his father’s real business became supporting public school teachers.

“He saw it as his mission to get kids working with their hands.  Manual literacy is what he called it.”

According to Ilse Enomoto, Isami’s daughter, “That was one thing he couldn’t really resist.  He couldn’t say no to the teachers.”  Many, many teachers had classroom clay projects fired at Ceramics Hawai‘i

“He’ll come here, he’ll baby sit it so nothing explodes, if something breaks, he’s there gluing it together, because it’s so important that the kids had clay.”

Mark remembers, “He always said “Kodomo no tame ni,” which means “For the sake of the children.”  He says this is the only reason we adults are here, is for the sake of the children.”

Bob Flint warned, “Isami would hate it if he knew you were doing this.  He would absolutely hate it.  he didn’t want any kind of accolades, any kind of attention.”

Mark says his father just wanted to be here one day and not be here the next.  But Hawai‘i remembers Isami and Zora Enomoto.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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